Inconvenient data

It just really gets in the way of sloppy thinking.

Fulbe herders, W Africa, 1984, taken from just outside my front door — a missionary memory of my own.

Our new vicar showed us a film of his early life as a child of missionaries in West Papua (the other half of Papua New Guinea).

A compilation of home movies, and from the 1970s, it was almost a splicing together of Victorian missionary cliches: small dark-skinned people carry suitcases on their heads through the jungle. White missionary in shorts and pith helmet preaches to seated crowds who are clad in shells and penis-gourds. Female white missionary gives injections while dark-skinned people wait patiently for their turn; local children run to greet the aeroplane.

I’ve spent a lot of my career writing positively about missions in a world where ‘everybody knows’ the whole endeavour is an exercise in cultural imperialism and thinly-veiled racism. These images confirm everything ‘everyone knows’ and they don’t help.

Except they did help. As the film unfolded, we saw the happiness on the people’s faces when they destroyed their weapons in a fire. We saw the road that two villages built to connect them because they wanted to give up war forever.  Primitive peoples? They were advanced enough to disarm and to build bridges with their neighbours and rivals. Conspicuously more advanced, then, than my country; and the gospel did that. The gospel the pith-helmeted missionaries in their t00-short 1970s shorts brought.

How often is the truth more complicated, and more unfashionable, than the lazy assumption? I think probably always.

Healing and technology

Slow healing — part 6

Injured Teddy Bear
Half of all the blindness in the world is caused by cataracts 1

This means presumably that half of the all the blindness Jesus cured was due to cataracts. Some of the rest was due to extreme short or long-sightedness.

These things can now be fixed by technology. Every person who is blind through cataracts or lensing issues can see again: only poverty or waiting lists stand in their way.

Do you have the feeling that having cataracts healed by surgery is somehow not as good as having them healed by direct divine intervention? I do. But I think my feelings are wrong.

The accumulated good deeds of previous generations (in this case, researchers and technologists) ripen the Kingdom of God in the earth. Thanks to those efforts, every leprous person can now be healed by antibiotics, every person blind through cataracts or myopia or presbyopia can be healed by surgery or opticians. I remember sitting in the post-surgery place in our local hospital, after my own cataract op, hearing people around me saying ‘I couldn’t drive– now  I  can!’ ‘I can’t believe how good this is!’

I was seeing the Kingdom come, in the slow, wide way rather than than the instant, limited-issue, demonstration-version way.

I worship the God who stirs the techies to build solutions to improve our lives. Is the gospel foolishness to the geeks? It shouldn’t be.

Do you agree? Is it so simple? What am I missing?

Keep a pencil handy

Because eternity’s at your shoulder

lined paper

Today someone, armed just with a pencil and paper could make something that will last forever.

It might be a pencil sketch, or a melody, or a novel, or a theorem.

As long as there are people, that picture or song or story or insight will live on. Even if humans are out-evolved by (let us say) intelligent machines, they may be wise enough still to treasure these divine relics.

And our art may add to the furniture in an eternal age to come. The Bible’s Book of Revelation says ‘The glory and honour of the nations’ will be carried into City of God (Rev 21:26).

Once there was a time when Picasso had not sketched a dove, when Handel had not written the Hallelujah chorus, when no-one knew the magical relation between e, i, pi, 1 and zero, when no-one had ever written a gospel or a sonnet.

Today or tomorrow some art will be created that will loved for a thousand or ten thousand years.

Two thoughts

Two obvious thoughts flow:

  1. How can anyone believe we are not made in the image of God? That we are not his sketches, melodies, novels, theorems? That he didn’t create us to create this stuff to celebrate his glory of which he contained too much to keep to himself?
  2. Buy a pencil-sharpener.

 

How to pray for healing. And how not to. A few suggestions

‘Slow’ healing – part 5

Injured Teddy Bear
The scene:
ill, disabled, or chronically sick person surrounded by well-meaning Christians who are praying.

Here’s how not to do it:

‘God, we pray that this person will get completely well’ (actually this isn’t a bad start)

‘Oh God, please touch this person’ (I’ve just peeped out of my closed eyes and nothing’s happening and I’m getting a bit desperate).

‘Oh God, please touch this person now’ (And I need to get home to watch Game of Thrones).

‘Oh God, we don’t understand your purposes.’ (Look God, I’m having to cover for you here).

‘Oh God, if there’s anything that’s blocking your healing, please deal with it.’ (We could all get out of this mess if this sick person got his act together.)

Here’s how I’d like you to do it to me:

‘Thank you God that you never stop doing good to us.’

‘Thank you that you set a table for us in the midst of our enemies.’

‘Thank you that carry us all day long and rejoice over us with singing.’

‘Thank you that you wept sometimes and you understand.’

‘Thank you that neither life nor death, neither height nor depth, nor any other thing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’

‘You know, Lord, thank you that you know.’

And occasionally, this

(and only if prompted by faith and if you can it truthfully)

‘God we trust you to sort this out.’

(Though I wouldn’t mind either if you kept that thought to yourself, took it home, and prayed and trusted there without asking anything of me.)

 

My favourite slow mission habit of them all

Do stuff you love, with friends.

Group hugs

Nothing comes close to this, in my experience:

  1. Get a group together doing something you all love.
  2. Mix together people who have a faith with people who don’t.
  3. Er – that’s it.

I’ve seen this so many times.

  • My wife ran a youth group for 15 years. We did youthy things on Sunday nights, and on Mondays all had a meal together and a Bible study. We used to take them camping as well. We saw several generations of young people grow in faith (and some not) over the years.
  • Our church organizes a men’s walking weekend each year, coupled with a monthly breakfast meeting that involves bacon sandwiches. We do curries and film nights too. Quite a few guys have been scooped up by this over the years.
  • I go to a community choir in our village organized by the local Baptist church. Several people, thus exposed to Baptist threshing machinery, have also now joined the church.
  • I used to be part of a book club, a place for some fantastic discussions.
  • We have a board games evening every month, people of varying orientation and faith all geeking together and enjoying each other’s company.
  • Once I organized a bird-watching event at 5:00am one May morning. I put it in our parish magazine. In the more than 10 years I edited that magazine, it was the only thing we advertised where the resulting crowd actually blocked the road. At 5 am! (Actually this was a one-off and did not result in a group, but perhaps it should’ve.)

Slow mission in a nutshell.

If you’re human, this is for you

Handle with care.

So what makes you different from an animal? And does it matter?

Theologians have the most interesting and radical answer. They tell us of course that we are stamped with ‘imageo dei‘, the image of God. Unlike the animals, humans do faith, hope and love.

Chimpanzees
Fail.

Are we the only ones? We can speculate that intelligent aliens may arise somewhere else in the Universe and also bear the imago dei, and perhaps in different ways. Maybe only together with all of them will the fulness of God be properly expressed.

Either way, if the theologians are right, a lot of us have to think differently. The standard model in most Western heads probably sees humans as bits of grit, epiphenomenal crumbs from creation’s picnic, odd growths on a damp rock. There’s a decent argument for that, when we think of how small we are and what common stuff we’ve been manufactured from.

But there’s also a good argument the other way. In zillions of attempts, evolution has repeatedly invented the eye or the wing, but we only know of one species who even think about bearing the imageo dei: wonderful us. 1

And if we are the Universe’s God-bearers, another good argument follows that we may be what the Universe itself is all about. Small? Doesn’t matter. Mostly water? Matters even less. Thanks to us, the Universe includes beings that are self-aware and can believe and doubt, and love and hate, and dream of eternity.

 

My book More than Bananas is available as a free Kindle and ebook download as well as in paid versions.

 

10 reasons to eat the forbidden fruit

Why you should do what marketing people tell you

mangoThe Bible is light on detail about the conversation between Eve and the Serpent over the forbidden fruit. Happily I’ve been able to obtain further details of the Serpent’s offer.

  1. The forbidden fruit is 100% natural and organic with no artificial flavouring, colouring or preservatives.
  2. It’s locally sourced and picked fresh.
  3. It’s one of your five-a-day.
  4. It’s made for sharing.
  5. This is a strictly limited, once-in-a-lifetime offer. Other animals in the Garden of Eden could take it away at any time. Hurry!
  6. You deserve the best.
  7. Imagine the look on your husband’s face when you present him with this precious gift.
  8. It’s absolutely free (terms and conditions apply).
  9. If you are not completely satisfied you may return the forbidden fruit at any time. The knowledge of Good and Evil will be yours to keep whatever you decide.
  10. Take back control of your life!

The fractal God

It’s all the same to him

first fractalIf you find something that has a pattern and you crank up the magnification and see the same pattern, you’ve found a fractal — an object that’s self-similar at different scales.

Nature is full of them. Tree branches fork the same way when they are the size of trunks or the size of twigs. Rivers split the same way into deltas and streams and trickles. All broccoli is roughly fractal but there is an insanely fractal variety called Romanesco, ideal for feeding to mathematicians. Snowflakes are fractal.

‘Fractal’ is a helpful lens for looking at God and God-stuff. For example:

Parables of the Kingdom are fractal. When Christ taught about the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed that grew to be a great plant, what was he talking about? A word that grips the heart? A change of behaviour that influences a community? A mass-movement that changes a continent? All of them. Parables are true at many different scales, because all are curated by the same God.

Faithfulness is fractal. God shepherds our whole lives, and our tiniest moments. It is, therefore, worth praying for something as big as a whole good life, and as fleeting as a car-parking space. Both are an appeal to the kindness of God, just at different scales.

His mercy is fractal. Of course he cares for the whole flock, but he also puts his coat on and heads out for the lost sheep; scale doesn’t come into it. He values the lost teddy bear as much as the lost Bible translation.

Transformation is fractal. The resurrection of Christ (which from our perspective happened at a single point in history and at a certain location) is the same sort of thing as the re-creation of the whole Universe. The essence is the same, the scale is different. And in our current setting, small-scale victories have a place in his purposes just as large-scale ones do.

His peace is fractal. Our anxieties exist at many different scales. Sometimes, for example, we suffer big and small losses at the same time. And sometimes God seems to deal with the wrong scale at the wrong time. Little gifts from him give testimony to his intricate touch; at the same time the big things, the things that really matter, seem to be all unfixed. It’s natural to resent this, but in another way we should welcome God mending the small things as a reminder that he also has the big things in hand.

His pleasure is fractal.  I don’t think God is more pleased by 25000 people worshipping in a tent as he is by one person’s act of quiet submission or patience. He possibly nudges the angels to point it out either way. ‘Look at my servant Job!’

Of course God works in fractal way, exercising the same attention with  the very small and the very great. Since he is infinite, all the scales probably look much the same to him.

The Primaeval Prologue as a reverse-engineered smoothie

You know it’s good for you

A smoothie: there it is in front of you, but you have no idea what’s in it. Somebody has to tell you what the ingredients are. Reality is like that.

Here's what we drink...
Here’s what we drink…

The first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis are called the “Primaeval Prologue,” and they are rather different from the rest of the book.

Once you get to the safe waters of Genesis 12, you know you are being helicoptered into the Middle Bronze Age and the scenery is familiar enough from all other kinds of historical documents that have been dug up over the centuries. Genesis 12 and onwards is Bronze Age literature with Bronze Age conventions, and it’s not much of a stretch to see it as broadly historical.

Genesis 1-11 is different. It talks about Creation, the Garden of Evil, the Flood, the Tower of Babel. It’s hard to shoehorn that into what we currently think we know of pre-history: human evolution, the development of languages, the way the world seems always to have known suffering, rather than having a time of perfection that was upended by human sin.

Not only that, but the stories in the Primaeval Prologue themselves seem to be … well different. Adam, for example, is not so much a name as the word for ‘mankind’. Then you have talking snakes and metaphorical trees.  And people who live 900 years. It’s as if the Bible is trying to tell us something. What’s it saying? Perhaps it’s saying the Prologue is much more about reality than it is about history. It’s really, as my Old Testament lecturer told me, about ‘who we are and what we are to do.’

But here's what it looks like
But here’s what it looks like

Reality is presented to us like a smoothie, already whizzed to a mush. The Primaeval Prologue tells us the ingredients: it’s a reverse-engineered smoothie. Here are these ingredients:

  • God made everything, and he made it good
  • People have chosen independence over trust and we are all caught up in this and it’s caused a lot of problems.
  • Disaster and recovery is an engine of history — the Flood is the archetype.
  • People coming together, achieving something, thinking they don’t need God, then toppling over, is another engine of history, true of corporations and countries — the Tower of Babel is the archetype.

Creation, fall, death, loss, coming together, falling short, falling apart are the ingredients of the smoothie called ‘reality’. They are history’s heartbeat: God’s creation and recreation; human rebellion; networks re-forming; on and on.

This is a much more fun text, much more profound, and much more useful than if it were merely history.


Bonus material — another way of saying that same thing that physicists might like: the Primaeval Prologue as a Fourier transform

Suppose you were able to express reality as a single complicated waveform.  Call that trace ‘reality’.  It would be quite a scribble.

Physicists know a beautiful piece of maths (called a Fourier analysis) that says every single possible scribble, however complicated, can be expressed as a sum (or in the limit an integral) of a bunch of beautiful, regular sine waves. If you find enough different sine waves and put them together carefully enough, you can reproduce any scribble, any signature, anything that can be drawn without a pencil leaving the paper.

So the complex scribble (or waveform) is ‘reality.’ The writer of the Primaeval Prologue did a Fourier analysis of it. And the stories in Genesis 1-11 are the resultant sine waves, simple things that everyone can understand. Sum them together, and you explain who we are and what we are to do.

Nice.

Here’s a link that explains the Fourier Transform. Unbelievably, it uses the same metaphor of a smoothie as I used earlier on. Equally unbelievably, it demonstrates how to transform a sketch of Homer Simpson in a series of sine waves.


You can read much more about this sort of thing in my book More than Bananas, How the Christian faith works for me and the whole world, which is free on Kindle.

Rowing a boat alone across a lake

Behold the terror and the joy

 

Lonely BoatingImagine rowing a boat on your own across a lake. The fears and joys are yours alone.

We are always alone. People may sit by our fireplaces–as it were–over many wonderful evenings and years. They may hug us and hold us, accepting each other as completely as two humans can.

But no-one knows us quite fully or quite truthfully. There are always veils. We are not entirely as we present ourselves, even to those we love the most.

Thanks to faith in Christ, though, I’ve discovered I’m never alone.

When I’m rowing alone across a lake, also known as living, Christ knows with me all the terror and the joy. Other loves may kindly watch, from the shore or other boats. Other loves may cheer and blow kisses. But he knows it all and we share it together.